A business guide to social media

How to approach online communities in a rapidly evolving environment


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It’s getting intense out there. Forget avoiding politics — you’re lucky if you dodge the incessant commentary from that kid from high school, the negatively charged social discourse surrounding data privacy and vocal activists on both sides of just about every issue lurking in the wings of Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, just waiting to troll your typo. Or worse.

Online communities evolve rapidly, so it’s a good idea to periodically check in on what’s happening behind the screen to see what you can learn or how you can help your audience more effectively.

Shifting demographics

Brands tend to follow their customers to the online communities they use the most. Usually, by the time a critical mass realizes a social media platform has been overrun by advertisers, those coveted potential customers are already on the lookout for a better place to spend their online time. But brands invest significant resources into long-term social marketing strategy, data-crunching, paid ads and campaign assets, so the natural incongruence in what you see and what you actually want to see in your social feeds is partly because brands are paying for you to see and hear what you cared about three months ago.

Tip: Take a step back and see where your target audience spends its time. Where do most of your complaints and feedback come from? Are you getting what you expected for what you’re paying for impressions (eyeballs) on LinkedIn? If your customers prefer email or private messaging for technical support, you may want to revisit your messaging before launching a new Snapchat campaign.

You’re not seeing what clients are seeing

What happens to you when you scroll through your Facebook timeline is in no way random. The posts, ads and other content you see are based on millions of dollars of research into user experience patterns, behavioral analysis algorithms and predictions based on actions you’ve taken online in the past few months or even years.

Social media platforms allow publishers to access an individual’s information and online history — and just about everyone else’s — to categorize them based on their likelihood to click an ad or buy a specific type of product. That’s called targeted content, and someone somewhere is probably paying for you to see it.

Tip: Targeted, customized content means you can’t judge social media based on your own experience. At any time, advertisers are running trials to see which ads perform best, and most social media platforms will serve users content it thinks we’ll like based on past clicks. It’s easy to unconsciously create an echo chamber that reinforces what you do and say, building up your confidence that what you see is universal and correct. You can’t count on either.

Be the oasis

You don’t have to look too hard to find toxic and generally unpleasant sentiments and other content on your favorite social media platform. Even the savviest folks can be fooled by a piece of content manipulated to look authentic. Our sharing economy has trained us this way. Unfortunately, it did not prepare us to maintain a healthy level of suspicion of what we read on the internet, so everyone from nefarious hackers to pyramid schemers chum the waters hoping an unsuspecting user takes the bait.

Tip: It can get stressful out there, whether it’s rants from relatives on Facebook, people on Reddit trashing your new product release, or a notification that you still need to reply to that evite, demanding your immediate attention and action. Find a way to be not that. Your social media audiences might appreciate a break from the rapid-fire lead nurturing content, or at the very least, a little compassion.

Just roll with it

So much of what we see online involves a social media manager at Company A tweeting back to a social media manager at Company B. How is that helping customers? Don’t be afraid of posts that don’t ask the user to do something, and offer a few no-strings-attached helpful tips pertaining to your product or service. Just because you can use complex metrics and third-party data to tie ROI to everything online doesn’t mean that’s the only — or most meaningful — way to measure how social media helps your business and your customers.

Jennifer Nickulas is a communications manager at Cookson Strategic Communications in Manchester.

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